(An essay about learning military lingo.)
“You don’t wanna be an airman no more, get yerselves promoted to SERGEANT!” shouted Sergeant Strale. On reflection, this was practical, even empowering advice. Only in the last ten years had the armed forces lifted the ceiling on women in the military (formerly limited to two percent of the corps), equalized men and women’s salaries, opened hundreds of closed specialties, and made promotion to higher ranks a reality. Sergeant Strale had enlisted in the days when women were recruited for their typing skills, made to wear skirts and heels, and expected to marry officers and leave the military; but he was quite the feminist in his ambitions for us—no less, when we had done well, than swift and well-earned advancement to “Chief Master Sergeant of the whole entire YEW ESS AY EFF!”
Not all advice was empowering, even when it was practical. “Schneider, you don’t get it together, yer ass gonna be on rollerskates, right outta Lackland,” screamed Sergeant Santera, Sergeant Strale’s assistant. I was on the cement apron in front of our barracks, and I had marched right instead of left, or perhaps I had wussed out before the end of our morning run and collapsed panting on the cinderblock track, or maybe I had fallen into formation half a second late; it is hard to remember, there were so many incidents.
Sergeant Strale, as a male TI with a female flight, maintained a modicum of decorum, winking broadly as he told us that FIGMO meant “Finally, I Got My Orders” or when he said that SNAFU meant “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.” Sergeant Santera was under no such constraint, and as a female TI may even have felt the need to prove her cussedness. She was about two inches taller than me, which meant when she tipped her head forward and screamed, my eyes were level with the crown of her ranger hat, which bobbed and tilted in front of me like an asp angling for a strike. Though my armpits gushed with perspiration and I prayed for an earthquake or nuclear attack to release me from this misery, I could not help noticing that Sergeant Santera’s diction was impeccable, the “don’t” like “dough” with an n at the end, and “gonna” very nearly one syllable. Her inflection rose and fell as if it were itself on rollerskates, gliding effortlessly around a rink in almost-flawless TI Haiku, an interesting bit of craft with irregular metrics and feminine endings:
You don’t get it toGETHer
Yer ass gon’ be on ROLLerskates
Right outta LACKland
— Sergeant Santera, Lackland AFB, August, 1983
I, a desperate understudy trembling in my fatigues and BCGs, listened carefully, if not to the meaning of what Sergeant Santera was saying—mostly, she was telling me I was clumsy, slow-moving, and disorganized, a message that rarely changed, and was unfortunately true—but the alluring way she said it, in such perfect, honeyed, elegantly scanned Air Force English. How I yearned to cross the river into her world.